“That was the Reims way: romantic football that was beautiful to watch, an elegant style with the ball always played to feet,” recalled Michel Hidalgo in conversation with FIFA.com.
The cause for the former France coach’s reminiscences is the return of his old club Stade de Reims to Ligue 1 after a 33-year absence, a return that has brought joy to anyone who remembers the “champagne football” the French side served up in winning six league titles between 1949 and 1962.
During that time they drove crowds wild with their cultured brand of football. The 79-year-old Hidalgo remembers those days well and is moved to compare their trademark possession game with that of the current Barcelona side, another team that likes to take care of the ball and combines intelligent team play with ruthless efficiency.
Hidalgo’s recollections of the great Reims sides of yesteryear go back to when he was just 21 and running out for Le Havre in his second season as a professional: “I played a great game against Reims and the France international Roger Marche, who was one of the best French players around at the time. I gave him a hard time on the right wing and that was how I got noticed and came to sign for Stade de Reims.”
A giant in Europe
The year was 1954, and Hidalgo, who had been playing for the team at the factory where he worked only two years previously, was on his way up: “That was when the club made it into the French and European footballing elite, with a galaxy of star international players like Raymond Kopa, Leon Glovacki, Rene Bliard and Robert Jonquet, and an exceptional coach in Albert Batteux.”
Hidalgo, who coached France at two FIFA World Cup™ finals and steered a Les Bleus side containing Michel Platini to victory at UEFA EURO 1984, had nothing but praise for Batteux. “To my mind, he is the greatest French coach of all time,” said his former charge. “He was a noble and intelligent man and a real innovator. He was a warm person too, and he had a way with words. When he spoke football he know what he was talking about.”
Batteux’s achievements speak for themselves, and when he left Reims in 1963 the club suddenly fell into decline.
Hidalgo spent three seasons working the wing for his coach, at the height of the club’s golden age, when they rivaled the very best in Europe: “I was on the bench for that famous 1955 Latin Cup semi-final match against AC Milan, the biggest team around back then, at the Parc des Princes in Paris. It was a legendary game, amazingly intense, and we won 3-2. In those days you had sudden-death extra time with no time limits, and we began to ask ourselves if we’d have to carry on till breakfast (laughs). In the end, Glovacki scored the golden goal in the 138th minute and we won the game.”
Real Madrid beat Reims 2-0 in the final, with the two sides meeting again the following year in another high-stakes match, the final of the inaugural European Cup.
“It would have been the highlight of my career if we had beaten them,” recalled Hidalgo, taking up the story. “We went into a 2-0 lead, and after they’d pulled level I scored to make it 3-2. It would have been wonderful for me if it had stayed like that, but we were up against a certain Alfredo Di Stefano, who beat us single-handed in the last quarter of an hour. In the end we went down 4-3.”
Though Hidalgo left the club in 1957 for Monaco, where he would spend most of his playing career and where he won a number of trophies, his epic adventures in the Reims shirt made a lasting impression on him. For three whole years, he had rubbed shoulders with and faced some of the biggest names in world football.
“We are still Reims men,” he said. “I’ve stayed very good friends with Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine, and I often see them in Reims. We have very close links to the club and we’ve been following their progress closely.”
The presence of the players who embodied the values of that great Reims side and of French football’s first golden age should serve as an inspiration to the newly promoted class of 2012, which will soon set about the task of consolidating its hard-won position back in the top flight.